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Debate about Israel requires nuance

Survivors of Auschwitz arrive at the International Monument

Survivors of Auschwitz arrive at the International Monument to the Victims of Fascism at the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp KL Auschwitz II-Birkenau walk to place candles on International Holocaust Remembrance Day in Oswiecim, Poland on Jan. 27, 2019. Credit: AP/Czarek Sokolowski

This year’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, marked on Sunday, unfolded against a troubling backdrop. The resurgence of anti-Semitism in many countries is one of the major stories of our time — and there are no easy answers on how to deal with it.

Many, especially American conservatives, see a major threat of anti-Semitism from the left — manifested in virulent hostility toward Israel and especially the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign. This campaign, they say, applies a double standard to Israel, treating it as “the Jews” — an international pariah accused of nefarious control over other countries’ leaders and of other underhanded and evil deeds.

Critics of Israel counter that this is a manifestly unfair accusation. Israel and its supporters, they say, try to silence legitimate if harsh polemics against Israel’s policies by invoking the specter of anti-Semitism and even by using state power to punish boycotts of Israel, through laws that forbid state institutions from doing business with those who participate in such boycotts.

For those of us who support Israel but also believe in freedom of speech and oppose identity politics, these are wrenching issues. The anti-boycott laws primarily regulate commercial activity, but sometimes impinge on speech and expression — for instance, when they target artists or public speakers or punish the advocacy of an Israel boycott, all First Amendment violations. And to say that animus toward Israel is always anti-Semitic comes uncomfortably close to labeling certain opinions — such as disapproval of black or feminist activist groups — racist or misogynist. Israel is a state, and one with controversial policies. One can be critical of a state and its leadership without hating its people, or people of the same ethnicity and culture in other countries.

Sometimes, Israel’s supporters deploy the charge of anti-Semitism unfairly — for instance, in response to cartoons that satirize Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu and use Jewish symbolism such as the six-pointed star, which is also a part of the Israeli flag.

But it is also undeniably true that anti-Israel rhetoric often lapses into overt hatred of Jews. In many majority-Muslim countries, anti-Israel propaganda frequently employs overtly anti-Semitic tropes. In the United States, novelist Alice Walker recently came under fire for recommending a book called “And the Truth Shall Set You Free” by British author David Icke in a New York Times interview. Icke’s book posits a Jewish conspiracy seeking world domination. Walker has stood by the recommendation and said that she is being punished for her pro-Palestinian advocacy and her support for an Israel boycott.

If some critics of Israel have been unfairly labeled anti-Semitic, it is equally true that quite a few anti-Semites use Palestinian causes and criticism of Israel as camouflage.

Women’s March activist Tamika Mallory, who has come under scrutiny for her association with the Jew-hating Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, recently stoked controversy when she refused to say whether she believes that Israel has a right to exist. Some say the question is an unfair one, since it is never asked about other countries. But most other countries don’t have organizations and movements dedicated to their destruction.

To question Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state is distinct from criticism of Israel. One can certainly criticize Israel’s treatment of its minorities. But proposals that would turn Israel and the Palestinian territories to a single Arab-majority state would almost certainly have catastrophic consequences, from mass expulsion to genocide.

When public figures harbor thoughts of Israel’s destruction, Holocaust Remembrance Day acquires a grim new relevance.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason.